You used to find bastions of bohemia on South Beach; cozy, East Village-style hangouts where original art adorned earth-toned walls and a wobbly stage held a platter of local musicians. At the time, studios and the starving artists who lived in them were located up and down Lincoln Road. That was more than fifteen years ago. Posh renovations and sky-high rent signaled an end to the epicenter of creativity, and no area in the county has taken its place, although developers behind the equally expensive Design District tried to have us believing that neighborhood would be the next SoHo. (For the record, it isn't.)
Today artists and musicians make their stand at bars and galleries scattered throughout Miami's east side, from Little Havana to the DesDis. Close together, these joints could form a concentration of coolness, but they're actually far apart. On the northern end of this prefecture is One Ninety, the lone bar in a tranquil residential hood called Buena Vista.
On any given night, One Ninety bustles with art scenesters. Some are locals, while the rest are South American and Euro hippies clad in the obligatory sandals and tattered jeans. They shouldn't all be interpreted as penniless patrons, though. You must have at least a little flow to afford the seven-dollar bottles of Belgian brew and pricey French-Asianesque cuisine at this dimly lit restaurant/lounge. Ironically One Ninety is great for chilling. For instance the air conditioner is seldom on, so the room is very warm. The whole place has a family-room vibe, from original paintings by restaurant owner Alan Hughes to the nonstop conversations carrying on at just the right volume.
I was hanging out there recently on a weekday night when I realized how hard it must be for a place like this to survive. I came to this conclusion with the help of a nice lady named Shelley Mitchell, a down-to-earth gal in her late thirties who seemed to know everybody there. She plopped herself next to me, starting up a chat with the artist who tends the bar (everybody who works at One Ninety is an artist, musician, or performer of some kind).
According to Mitchell, she was just talking to Charlie Chaplin on the terrace in front of the restaurant. The bartender humored her. "The silent movie star? The Little Tramp?" I interrupted. "Yup," she responded. That's when I noticed that each set of Mitchell's toes was painted a different color: one red, one blue. I knew right then that I had found a friend. It turned out she was a lawyer, one of those rare idealists who practices "karma law," and manages musicians, including Omar Roque, on the side, pro bono. She's the perfect person to talk to about live music.
"The problem with this scene is disillusionment. The musicians carry their equipment up narrow flights of stairs and play for two hours and don't get paid more than $100 to split among the band. That's like $20 each member," Mitchell explained. "But there's no money because nobody wants to pay a $5 cover to see them. The beautiful people won't come and pay, and everybody follows the beautiful people."
Mitchell is mother and mentor to several aspiring artists, many of whom walked up to her during our discussion, greeting her with a hug. There was Tony Smurphio, the happy-go-lucky, big Afro-wearing synth player from Suenalo Sound System. He was sitting in with altrock band Cleveland Jones that night. (Most of these musicians play in numerous bands, trying to get around as much as they can.) I asked Smurphio if that was his real name. "No, I gave up my prep-school name long ago," he says. "But if you want to know, my Davidian name is 'Dog.'"
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Later on, a perfect little fairy named Joana, an eighteen-year-old ballerina who also serves fare here, came fluttering by. Curious, she queried me about my notepad and digital camera. The sprite had the presence and confidence of a Hollywood actress. I took her picture. She asked to see it, but I refused to oblige her. She grew adorably peeved.
Joana told me in Spanish, "I came from Argentina last year, dying of hunger, and all I do is work." She gave me the most seductive pout I have ever seen. But when I learned that her last name was Cooper because she had just gotten married, I cried inside as I turned to the stage.
I caught Cleveland Jones playing its last set of the night. It was an atmospheric, bluesy jam as smooth as any Blue Note record I've heard, and I liked it. So I wondered why these bands can't garner a larger following in Miami, at least one as big as the Spam Allstars. I looked to Mitchell for a slice of wisdom. "You can't dance to them," she said.
One Ninety is located at 190 NE 46th St. Call 305-576-9779.